Review: GURPS Disasters – Meltdown and Fallout

A pity this one didn’t get published last week to coincide with Chernobyl’s 30 years after. But it’s still a topical first release in a long-awaited (at least by me) new series. Didn’t expect  this one specifically – the title wasn’t in the examples section – but it’s a nice companion for the recently released first helpings of After the End. At the same time, it’s nice to see GURPS going back to its roots by providing gameable abstractions of real-world situations.

On the first page, there’s the sentence “All the real-world information in this
supplement was obtained from public sources and off-the-record discussions with experts.” If such a line comes from a GURPS author, I’m  inclined to believe such a promise.

Cover Page for GURPS Disasters: Meltdown and Fallout

Facts

Author: Roger Burton West (“RogerBW” on the forums)
Date of Publication: 2016/05/05
Format: PDF-only (Warehouse 23-only)
Page Count: 31 (1 title page, 1 contents page, 1 bibliography page,  1.5 index pages, 0.5 page ad)
Price: $7.99 (PDF), $ 0.30 per page of content (counting the bibliography); Score of 3/10
Preview: http://www.warehouse23.com/media/SJG37-1710_preview.pdf

Review

As all my other reviews this one will be rated according to meat (rules, stats, game mechanics), cheese (setting, characters, story), sauce (form, writing, style, art) and generic nutritional substance (universal nature, adaptability). At the end you find a weighted average of those components and a value score that also takes into account price per page.

Author Roger Burton West has a good track record when it comes to articles and books about robots or nuclear stuff, including the 4th Edition incarnation of Reign of Steel: Will to Live.

As the first title in the new line, it’s interesting to take a look at the book’s composition. First off, we get the introduction that briefly brings us up to speed why the topic is interesting in an RPG and how it can be used in different campaign frameworks. There’s also a glossary of the terms provided Then we get seven pages of real-world background information, including possible accident scenarios. Next are nine pages about gaming the meltdown, followed by two pages of radiation gear – real and (mildly) speculative. Rounding it off are eight pages about possible campaigns and adventures, a bibliography and the index. Nothing surprising here, but surprise is not actually what you’d be looking for in a book about real-world topics.

This is, of course, a book addressed mainly to GMs. I’m not sure you’d need anything besides the Basic Set to play around with it, but it’s certainly not bad to have High-Tech at hand. Do note that some High-Tech equipment stats are updated here. There are some ties to After the End, Action and Zombies, but those are strictly optional.

Meat

The meat of the matter is contained mostly in the first three chapters – but it’s mixed heavily with the cheese. The first chapter starts off gently by explaining fission and sustainable chain reactions in layman’s terms. We learn about the different reactor models and radiation types, fuel, waste and how to protect against radiation (including updated Protection Factor numbers). There are also sections on economic and social impact, but they are fairly short. There’s also a box on ultra-tech meltdowns, dealing with fusion and antimatter reactors.

The second chapter “Gaming a Meltdown” first has a Characters-like section that presents us with a list of the very much expected exotic traits to resist radiation. Then it veers off into versions of common perks, disadvantages and quirks. The latter two – Always Jokes / No Sense of Humour About Radiation – are a bit weird. More interesting are the skills. More useful are the skill notes that explain what specialisation covers what. There’s also a small section on superhero mutations. And then there’s the meltdown itself. If you ever wanted to know how much damage a reactor’s steam explosion could do, you need not look further. Also there are detailed rules for nuclear weapons – which frankly surprised me a bit – but that was the one area where 4th Edition’s High-Tech  was lacking compared to its predecessor.

Also in this chapter are both After the End‘s simplified Radiation Threshold Points and a more detailed, realistic method for simulating radiation exposure. There are also some rules for affecting truly exotic characters. Fallout dispersion gets a detailed treatment too.

The gear chapter has very specialised realistic anti-radiation remedies. Fun fact: Some of the really advanced stuff is so hideously expensive it makes regular cancer drugs look like chump change.

Some meat is also found in the boxes and tables of Chapter 4, like fright check modifiers for radiation exposure and likely damage from fires, steam, toxic chemicals and electricity.

Personally, I would have liked a little bit more on radiation effects on wildlife, vegetation and machinery – as well as even more detailed rules for radiation sickness on characters. That’s mostly nitpicking, though. The book answers most of my questions on how to treat a nuclear disaster rules-wise and even some I didn’t know I should ask.

Meat score: 8 (reactor is critical)

Cheese

Some of the campaign-building and flavour parts are distributed through the first two chapters. That includes real-world effects that aren’t quantified into crunchy rules and also descriptions of historical disasters. Most of the cheese is contained in chapter four, though. That one deals explicitly with campaigns and adventures.

Obviously the focus here is on modern-day earth and the seven decades before today, but there are alternatives that include nuclear steam engines (not as unrealistic as you might have thought), spaceship reactors and magical reactors. Technomancer‘s NEMA is briefly discussed, as is general magical “radiation” as well as magical smybolism. We learn about different countries’ nuclear safety nets, security forces and the global organisational oversight.

The chapter presents different kinds of hazards from a story point of view – whether as the main focus or a just a complication. Meltdown-focussed adventures are split in two flavours: prevention and disaster management with many different sub-grouping and specific (if generalised) adventure seeds thrown in between. Infinite Worlds gets a seed, but there could be more ties to other settings, especially After the End and Reign of Steel.

Necessarily some things have been left a big vague as there are many different types of reactors and safety and security arrangements, but I would have liked a bit more on specific hazards that occur during clean-up or rescue, maybe in the form of ‘hazard seeds’ boxes just like there are adventure seed ones. It’s not a big problem, but sometimes things feel a little bit removed from the action on the ground.

One thing I’m feeling a bit ambiguous about: The book tries hard to be neutral about atomic vs. renewable energy, but there is a certain undercurrent in favour of the atom that doesn’t taste very good to me. Your mileage may vary, of course. As a member of the Chernobyl generation I might just be a bit touchy.

Cheese score: 7 (politicians clearly back nuclear energy)

Sauce

Burton West’s prose is clear and elegant, but quite technical at times – don’t expect many Kromm-like jokes (there is one though, have fun finding it). The book doesn’t require excessive physics knowledge, but readers should be generally aware how atoms work, at least to tell apart electrons, neutrons and protons.It gets more technical in some spaces, but rarely to the point where the interested reader becomes less so. Science-shy readers might want to avoid looking too closely at the “Measuring Radiation” box, though.

It’s still weird to me to read science with degrees Fahrenheit, but the average American reader won’t have that problem. Another thing that’s annoying are that the giga-/peta-/eta-becquerel numbers that are really hard to visualise, but there’s not much Mr. Burton West could do about that.

There are a couple of intersting titbits here like Lake Karachay, the most polluted place on earth, or the 2012 Oak Ridge Incident, in which an 82 old nun and two companions broke into a top secret nuclear facility, but unfortunately they not very detailed – come on, at least mention that she was a nun!

There are some some slight compositional problems: e.g. the output of a normal reactor in MW is found in a sub-heading in Chapter 4 and as contrasting number under Turnkey Reactors. That isn’t ideal, but we’ve had worse.

Illustrations, as usual, are extremely sparse – three out of four can be seen on the title page and the third one is a warning sign. They’re not that pretty either. I do like the brushed steel for ‘Disasters’ on the title page though.

The bibliography is pretty exhaustive for such a small book, but I find myself incapable to comment on the non-fiction. It seems a pretty good mix overall, though.

Sauce score: 4 (think about lowering those graphite rods!)

Generic Nutritional Substance

That’s better than you might think, actually. Sure, you can only get bona-fide nuclear disasters in relatively modern or future settings, but the book also considers the problem of magical equivalents / ramifications. It’s still rather limited, but it does raise some interesting questions. Much of the information is about the real, of course, but that also covers a heck of a lot of campaigns.

As a special bonus, much of the material will be applicable to other game systems too. Most of the equipment can be used as is and the real-world data doesn’t change with the system.

Generic Nutritional Substance score: 6 (dodged that lethal dose)

Summary

A very promising start for a new series. I’m looking forward to more from both the author and the series. I won’t exactly start putting nuclear stuff into my campaigns, but I feel confident I could manage that better than before, should the need arise.

As always I wouldn’t have minded another half a dozen pages, though. Up your standard length to 38 pages already, Steve Jackson Games!

Total score: 6.575 (expected half-life of 20 years on my digital shelf)
Total score is composed of a weighted average of Meat (32.5%), Cheese (32.5%), Sauce (20%) and Generic Nutritional Substance (15%). This is a book balanced between Meat and Cheese.

Value score: 4,7875 (cost more tax dollars than expected)
Value Score is composed of the average of Total and Price.


GURPS is a registered trademark of Steve Jackson Games, and the art here is copyrighted by Steve Jackson Games. All rights are reserved by SJ Games. This material is used here in accordance with the SJ Games online policy.

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